“People are appreciating the smaller moments in life” With Jaclyn Bliss & Karina Michel Feld

I think people are appreciating the smaller moments in life that might have just passed by otherwise. It’s easy to appreciate the birthday party or the wedding or the vacation. But, pre-Covid, at least for me, I didn’t always appreciate sidewalk chats with my neighbors or the cup of coffee on the porch with my […]

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I think people are appreciating the smaller moments in life that might have just passed by otherwise. It’s easy to appreciate the birthday party or the wedding or the vacation. But, pre-Covid, at least for me, I didn’t always appreciate sidewalk chats with my neighbors or the cup of coffee on the porch with my husband before work. It sounds silly, but these moments matter so much. I’m hopeful that we will continue to appreciate the small things in life.

Our resolve and strength gives me hope. If we can manage through a national toilet paper shortage in the middle of a global pandemic, we can do anything.

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Many of us now have new challenges that come with working from home, homeschooling, and sheltering in place. As a part of our series about how busy women leaders are addressing these new needs, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jaclyn Bliss, CRO of Vicinity Energy.

Jaclyn (Jackie) Bliss is the Chief Revenue Officer for Vicinity Energy, where her primary mission is to grow the company’s top line by focusing on network densification. Jackie is a strategic global executive who has a passion for leading teams to exceed ambitious marketing, sales and financial targets. She has served as head of multiple divisions for large energy companies, including Enel X (formerly EnerNOC) and National Grid.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

Thanks so much, Karina. It’s a pleasure to speak with you.

My career has taken many different twists and turns over the years, but I think the defining moment was back when I was a student at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia. I was accepted to a 5-year program during my junior year at Columbia College, which gave me the opportunity to not only get my BA, but a Masters in Public Administration as well. Going into the program, I planned on studying social welfare policy and going into a government role, but that never materialized. During my second semester in the program, I enrolled in a class on energy and the environment to fulfill a graduation requirement. I found the class so intriguing that I ultimately switched my concentration and continued my studies through SIPA’s center on energy policy.

A few years after graduating from SIPA, I decided to go back to business school and, after graduating, I’ve had the chance to work at many different companies in a myriad of roles. I worked in finance, doing mergers and acquisitions for energy companies; I’ve spent time in large utilities; I’ve experienced the thrill of working for an energy start up. And now, I am at Vicinity Energy, the largest district energy company in the United States. I’ve held roles in operations, sales, general management, and now I am the Chief Revenue Officer, responsible for growing our business. The one constant has been my industry. Energy is such a fascinating space and it’s particularly interesting right now as we are at yet another inflection point. We’ve gone from coal to oil to natural gas and now here we are in the middle of the green, de-carbonization movement. It’s been an exciting ride so far and I love what I do.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started at your company?

Sure. Probably the most interesting thing that has happened to me since starting as the CRO with Vicinity is being sent home after only 4 weeks on the job. I was hired in January and my first day with the company was in early February. I immediately found myself drinking from the fire hose.

Veolia Energy divested its district energy business and Vicinity was born as an independent company on January 1st. While we had customers and revenue, we’re building a lot from scratch, including all new systems, new processes, and we also created a brand new national sales organization, bringing together all of the local sales teams into one unified group. It’s a start up that’s been around for 100 years.

I was in the middle of making sense of everything, getting to know my colleagues, and prioritizing my action plan when Covid hit hard. After only a few weeks on the job, I was at home like everyone else. It was a time of high anxiety. I had to figure out a way to earn my team’s trust. I had to think about building a strong foundation for our new sales organization. I had to focus on hitting aggressive growth targets and figure out how to meaningfully engage with our top customers. I had to think about how to build our new brand, which is tough in the middle of a global pandemic. This was certainly not how I anticipated my onboarding would go!

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes, we have a lot of exciting projects underway. Despite the pandemic, it’s a really busy and thrilling time to be at Vicinity.

Right now, we’re working with a major hospital to evaluate their energy needs. They are trying to meet a number of objectives — to save money on their energy bills, improve reliability to ensure no disruptions in their service, and meet some aggressive sustainability savings targets. We are proposing a solution that would meet all of their goals, by connecting them to our low carbon system and introducing back up generation so that they never have to worry about not being able to provide critical patient care.

We’re also in the process of rolling out our net zero carbon plan. What’s really cool about district energy is that we are agnostic to fuel source. Essentially what we do is convert electrons to steam through our boilers and then pump that steam through our vast network of underground pipes to our customers who use it for heating, cooling, sterilization, and a myriad of other things. So, we’re introducing biofuels into our mix and evaluating electric boilers, hydrogen, battery storage and so many other cool technologies to achieve our aggressive carbon plan. What I love about district energy is that we can be super flexible and adaptable, which is exactly what’s needed as things in our industry are evolving so quickly.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Oh, there are so many people who are responsible for helping me get to where I am today. I’ve had the most amazing mentors and an incredibly supportive family all of whom have encouraged me to take risks and provided me with a soft cushion to land on if I need it.

That said, if I look back on the person who was most influential, it has to be my dad. Unfortunately, he passed away 7 years ago, which is hard to believe. But, he set an example for my brother and me at an early age. He always worked harder than anyone else. He had a full-time job in pharmaceutical sales, traveled frequently, and then spent many weekends away in the army reserves. His work ethic was impressive and I always tried to emulate that.

I remember so clearly when he retired. His colleagues of over 3 decades threw a big party for him in Boston and my entire family was there to celebrate with him. For over an hour, people got up to talk about how amazing he was as a manager, and a mentor, and a teammate, and about how successful he was throughout his career. I always knew this about my dad, but I couldn’t help but think how awesome it would be to end my own career that way. When I think about that night, I remember to bring my best self to work every day.

The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. Can you articulate to our readers what are the biggest family related challenges you are facing as a woman business leader during this pandemic?

Well, I need to start off by saying that I am extremely fortunate. I have an absolutely incredible partner in my husband, Ned; I have daily childcare that I trust; and I have a super supportive family that’s local. I read in the Times the other day that 80% of parents that are working remotely are responsible right now for childcare and homeschooling. I cannot even imagine how difficult that must be. These parents are another group of unsung heroes during this global health crisis.

That said, I certainly have experienced some family related challenges during the pandemic. I guess firstly, I have discovered that I am not immune to mother’s guilt. My year-old son, Max, is at the age when he really wants his parents around. The other day, he was in the family room and I popped out of my office to grab something from the kitchen. He came roaring toward me in his little walker (which is a bat mobile by the way), and I had to stop him and turn him around so I could go into my office to take a call. I could hear him crying through the door. It absolutely crushed my soul.

We also live in a city apartment so space is a big challenge. My husband and I are both working from home and, with a baby in the house, quiet space is very limited. We have one small den where we can retreat and he and I are constantly jockeying for it based on who has the more important meeting. Whichever one of us loses sits at the dining room table, right next to where our son plays during the day. Our family also things its really funny to buy Max the loudest, most annoying toys and of course those are the ones he loves the most.

As a woman, I find that I often feel pressure to juggle so much. On top of being a mom and a wife and trying to work in a small space, I am constantly thinking about what’s for dinner, or whether my son’s laundry is done so he has clean PJs, or how to meet my other family commitments, and of course how to be the best possible CRO I can be. As I said, I am so fortunate to have such a wonderful support system to help me, but there is a lot to manage for sure.

Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?

Well, my husband and I now have sit downs at least once a week to review our calendars. We try not to schedule anything mission critical at the same time. It doesn’t always work but it’s much better than it was when all of this started. We also plan out all of our meals at the beginning of the week and designate the lead for getting dinner on the table. Max does not appreciate it when we have late calls and supper is delayed.

The other thing I’ve been trying to do (with my husband’s support) is to let go a little. Throughout my career, I have tended to separate my work and home life. That’s not to say that I don’t have a lot of close friends from work, but I take my professional persona very seriously. These days, the two are constantly bleeding together. Max recently figured out how to push open the office door when I haven’t closed it all the way, so he has popped in on lots of calls. He even joined an interview I was conducting the other day. Pre-Covid, I would have been really stressed about something like this. I’m learning to be much more zen when work and home life collide.

Can you share the biggest work related challenges you are facing as a woman in business during this pandemic?

The pandemic has changed so much about how we work. As the head of a sales team, I’ve had to guide my team through a transition to entirely virtual sales. When your team is skilled at relationship selling and sells across a table, learning how to engage online can be hard and is a key focus for us.

Like so many managers, I’ve been challenged with engaging my team and making them feel supported. We’ve had to think of creative ways to engage with one another. My team is new as of April and creating a collaborative environment has been harder than it would be normally.

I also suffer from the fatigue of relentless conference calls from sun-up to sun-down. When I could pop to the office next door to discuss something with a colleague, now I have to find time on the calendar, make an appointment, and set up a virtual meeting. While I think we’re all learning to be productive remotely, it has been an adjustment to the way I’ve always worked.

As a woman, I think my biggest challenge has been continuing to engage my network. I co-founded a chapter of the Women’s Energy Network here in Boston a few years ago and the community of talented women this organization has brought together is absolutely amazing. In fact, it’s because of WEN that I am sitting in the role I have today. Not only has my network opened up career opportunities for me, but it has also provided me with a much needed outlet and a chance to vent with other women dealing with similar challenges of demanding days with work and family. Keeping up with these women who are my professional support system has been more challenging than ever.

Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?

Well, with respect to my network, we’ve been managing the best we can to stay connected. WEN puts on monthly events geared towards engaging each other virtually and we’ve found some creative ways through Zoom and other platforms, leveraging technology as best we can. I’ve also had to put networking activities on my to do list and I try to plan for one networking activity a week — whether that is a one-to-one phone call, attending an event, or setting up group coffee chats online with my female colleagues. It’s amazing how much this helps the psyche. Sharing experiences, ideas and simply having a chance to talk to other women facing similar challenges is food for the soul.

My son also reminds me every day not to sweat the small stuff and to put things in perspective. Funny story — the other day I came out of my office having just finished up a rather challenging and stressful call. I walked into the kitchen where my son was in his high chair having lunch with his nanny and my husband was working at the counter. I came out pretty exasperated. I picked up my son out of his high chair and was bouncing around the room with him while venting to my husband. All of the sudden, my son takes his pacifier out of his mouth and pops it right into mine. We all died laughing. It was as if he was saying, this makes me feel better when I’m stressed out mum, you try. It was exactly what I needed at that moment.

Can you share your advice about how to best work from home, while balancing the needs of homeschooling or the needs of a family?

As I said before, I am so fortunate to have a husband that shares the load, an amazing nanny, and a family close by for support. That said, working from home in our tight apartment isn’t easy. I guess my first piece of advice would be to set a schedule and make a plan. The weeks when my husband and I don’t plan are always more painful than the ones when we do. We understand who is taking the lead and when, and we’re not figuring it out in the moment. It also helps us adjust if something urgent comes up.

Not only do I need to set a schedule at home, but also during the workday. I am at my best when I build some slack into my calendar and when I’m not rushing from call to call. I wish I could take credit for this idea, but call it coincidence or intuition, about a year ago my mom — also a business professional — pointed me to a book, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, by behavioral economist Sendhil Mullainathan and psychologist Eldar Shafirwhere. It’s there I learned the concept of how extremely busy people can use slack scheduling. Now I schedule in short breaks for lunch, focus time, even exercise. When I wasn’t putting these things on my calendar, I wasn’t doing them and I had no time to think, prioritize or clear my mind. It’s important to maintain your headspace.

Also, I unplug. Working remotely means being tethered to devices and screens more than ever before. To keep this overload in check, I shut my computer down at the end of the day to have dinner with my family. We make a real effort not to watch TV or talk about work or Covid, but something else — something funny Max did that day; a plan for the upcoming weekend; etc.

I guess in summary I would say my best advice is to schedule and plan.

Can you share your strategies about how to stay sane and serene while sheltering in place, or simply staying inside, for long periods with your family?

Who says I’m sane and serene? I don’t think anyone in my family would ever use those words to describe me.

No, but seriously, for me it’s all about two things: exercise and fresh air. I absolutely see a positive shift in my mood, patience, and anxiety levels when I schedule a bike ride or a yoga glass into my day. Sometimes it’s really hard with back-to-back conference calls, but I have been making a point to block off my calendar to fit this in. I’m also noticeably more productive after a good workout.

I also need to get outside, even if it’s just for a few minutes every day. It’s absolutely amazing what a little vitamin d can do.

Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

This is such a tough time. I have close friends who live alone and I know they get so lonely day after day. I also have health-compromised family members who are scared to go out to simply get groceries.

But, I have so much confidence in the smart minds working on a vaccine for this virus and am really encouraged by the fact that we are already in early trials. I know it is still a ways out until one is commercially available, but this helps me see the light at the end of the tunnel. We will get through this; I’m certain of it.

And, five reasons to be hopeful, here goes:

My number one is related to something I mentioned a few moments ago and that is the fact that we’ve realized it’s okay for work life and home life to bleed into each other. I think this is a huge step in continuing to create equality for men and women in the workplace. I’ve had my male colleagues’ kids hop on to our conference calls and it’s okay. I think there is a growing appreciation across the board for how hard it is to juggle all of the demands of a career and a family. I’m hopeful that this continues and, once this is over, we can all continue to empathize with each other a little better.

Number two is around remote working. I know so many managers who were vehemently opposed to having remote employees. The corona virus has turned all of that upside down and I know people who have completely changed their point of view. We’re proving that we can be productive at home, maybe even more productive, which is such a good thing. I’m hopeful that this opens up more opportunities for people with disabilities or family challenges or impossible commutes or even simply provides working parents with more flexibility.

Number three is I think people are appreciating the smaller moments in life that might have just passed by otherwise. It’s easy to appreciate the birthday party or the wedding or the vacation. But, pre-Covid, at least for me, I didn’t always appreciate sidewalk chats with my neighbors or the cup of coffee on the porch with my husband before work. It sounds silly, but these moments matter so much. I’m hopeful that we will continue to appreciate the small things in life.

I think my fourth reason to be hopeful is the rise in respect people have for each other in their communities, at least that’s true in my city of Somerville, MA. While being courteous is different these days and giving people distance is the best way to be respectful, I appreciate that the people around me are taking my health and my family’s health seriously and that we do the same for them. This morning, I walked up to a coffee shop up my block. You have to order online and then stand outside 6 feet apart until your name is called and then pick up your order from the window. As I walked up the street, a woman dipped off the side walk to give me room to pass by giving me a friendly wave. I am hopeful that we will continue to respect each other and work hard to keep our neighbors safe.

And, finally, my number five is our resolve and strength gives me hope. If we can manage through a national toilet paper shortage in the middle of a global pandemic, we can do anything.

From your experience, what are a few ideas that one can use to effectively offer support to their family and loved ones who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

It’s so easy to feel anxious and lonely and stressed right now. We are all dealing with so much uncertainty. The first thing I try to remind people is not to take the weight of the world on their shoulders. It’s okay to reach out for support. We don’t have to face all of this alone. I also encourage my family and friends to find an outlet and this looks different for everyone. For some people quiet time meditating or doing yoga or picking up a hobby are great ways to relieve stress. For others (like my husband), being around people brings them energy. So, I encourage these people to do some group virtual exercise or plan a virtual dinner to create some social time.

The other thing I try to encourage is eating well. This is so hard right now, especially when we are all at home steps away from the fridge. But I always feel better when I put healthy things in my mouth. It’s easy when you’re feeling down to head towards the bread basket, but if I can resist the urge, I almost always feel better.

And, finally, I try to remind people that this isn’t going to last forever; it feels endless right now, but we will get through it together.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I think my favorite life lesson quote is “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” I love this quote because it means you have to put yourself in the position to be lucky or successful. I’ve tried to do this throughout my life, not just my career. I was lucky enough to meet my husband online who is the best partner I could ever ask for. There is a 0% chance our paths ever would have crossed had I not put myself if the position to meet him by signing up for that online dating site. I have always tried to be prepared to take advantage of any opportunity that comes my way and to keep my catcher’s mitt open. I think this has a lot to do with my successes in life.

How can our readers follow you online?

Great. I am very active on LinkedIn and the easiest way to find me is by searching for Jackie Bliss at Vicinity Energy. I would be delighted to connect with your readers.

Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!

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